The Winter of Enchantment

2986057by Victoria Walker
Children’s Lit
4 of 5 stars
Debut novel: 1969

I suspect many people like me found this because Garth Nix references it as one of his favorite novels and an inspiration behind Sabriel (though having read it that seems comical, given how much darker Sabriel is). This short book was written and published without much of the traditional process in place today, but it was easy for me to see why its enduring charm has kept it in print for decades.

A portal fantasy set in Victorian London, this follows young Sebastian as he waits for his father to return from India with his new stepmother. While he waits, he stumbles upon a magical Mirror that shows him a girl imprisoned in an evil Enchanter’s Treasure House. Sebastian resolves to save her with the help of a magical Teapot and a cat named Mantari.

This story is full of tropes, yet the earnest language precludes boredom with succinct diction and a sort of on-the-nose acknowledgment of the stories that came before it. Sebastian does set out to save the girl, but Melissa proves to be clever and capable too, and causes him to realize girls are more than pretty objects sitting around to be rescued. It’s cute in its approach.

What surprised me most was the deft description of the utterly strange world Melissa inhabits—dreamlike qualities and magic with unknown rules that reminded me of Lewis Carroll. In every chapter there’s something strange and surprising, with beautiful imagery and youthful creativity.  A lot of my enjoyment came from seeing accepted “rules” of stories broken—there’s a raw enthusiasm for the story here that is contagious.

Pick this up for a fun little quest to defeat evil and set things to rights! If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The Winter of Enchantment is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • The Secret Horses of Briar Hill by Megan Shepherd – Emmaline is the only child able to see the winged horses in the mirrors of the mansion-turned-hospital. When one of them turns up on her side of the mirrors, she promises the Horse Lord that she will protect Foxfire from the Black Horse that hunts her. A story of hope and magical realism during WWII in England. See my review here.
  • The Night Parade by Kathryn Tanquary – Saki doesn’t want to go to her grandmother’s house in the country, but when she messes around with some local kids she unleashes a death curse on her family.  With the help of three different spirit guides, she absolutely must set things right during the Night Parade! See my review here.
  • The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi – So many of the descriptions in The Winter of Enchantment reminded me of this book. Jeweled trees, a huge mansion, a girl unsure of her identity and if she’s a prisoner or a queen. This YA fantasy inspired by Indian mythology is a delicious read of dreams and destiny. See my review here.
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling – The ultimate portal fantasy of our generation. See where Harry’s journey begins as he attends Hogwarts to become a wizard. (Having just read this again, it’s probably even more adorable than you remember). See my review here.

The Secret Horses of Briar Hill

25488299by Megan Shepherd
Children’s Lit
5 of 5 stars

This beautiful little story feels fresh and familiar. I absolutely loved it!

I’m not sure that I can write a better review than Maggie Stiefvater’s. This story seems deceptively light until you pay attention to the details Emmaline notes (or omits) as you piece together clues not only about the winged horses in the mirrors of the mansion-turned-hospital but to the people there and the war going on and the childrens’ health. You want to believe Emmaline’s charming, sweet, sharp voice–especially when her emotions cut at you with their resonance.

Emmaline and several other children with the “stillwaters” live with a few nuns that care for them as the war rages in Europe. They’ve all lost people and their pasts. Some of them have accepted this. Others choose to hope that if they can wait long enough, everything will go back to the way it was before. Emmaline has seen winged horses in the mirrors of the house since she arrived, but nobody else can see them. When a wounded horse turns up in the garden on her side of the mirrors, Emmaline vows to the Horse Lord that she will protect Foxfire from the Black Horse that hunts for her.

Deftly woven into Emmaline’s mission are the fragile lives of the children, the nuns, and the groundskeeper, Thomas. Surviving each day is its own victory, and everyone has to hunt for moments of joy, beauty, and light amidst their gray, war-torn existence. The atmosphere and adventure in this story evoked so much emotion in me–I know I’ll be rereading this many times.

The perfect read for Christmastime – magical realism for a magical time of year!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The Secret Horses of Briar Hill is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett – A young girl leaves her life in India behind for fresh start in the moors of England. Then she learns she isn’t the only child staying in the manor, and there are secrets everywhere to be uncovered. Timeless and magical!
  • Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt & Alison McGhee – Sisters Sylvi and Jules are inseparable, especially after their mother’s death. But when Sylvi disappears too, Jules is left to wonder how she and her father can continue on. A fox kit observes this from the forest, knowing she is meant to help this sad girl. See my review here.
  • Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar – Carolina’s family spends a summer at her grandfather Serge’s remote desert ranch to pack it up for sale. But Serge’s strange tales begin to seep in to house, and Carolina isn’t sure that he is making them up. See my review here.
  • The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle – A lone unicorn tries to find the rest of her kind as she travels the wide world. This story is short and beautiful, I wish I had read it sooner!
  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis – Four siblings go to the countryside to be safe from the war. Lucy pokes around the old house’s disused rooms and find a wardrobe that transports her to a magical kingdom, but her siblings don’t believe her until they see it for themselves–and become drawn into a war between good and evil for the fate of the land called Narnia.
  • The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater – Another story about horses, but these prefer to eat humans rather than befriend them. Puck is the first girl to enter the deadly race, where only the survivor gets the winner’s purse. See my review here.

Middle-grade vs YA: what’s the difference?

LEVIOSA finalThis was the panel I enjoyed the most at Leviosa Con a couple of weeks ago, mainly because the recurring comment from my critique partners causing me to rethink my story was this: the voice sounds very middle-grade, especially at first – is this story YA?

When I asked them what about the voice sounds middle-grade, I kept getting back these answers: it’s lighter, it’s funny, it’s more humorous, it’s not as dark, not enough angst, there’s not really any romance…

This really piqued my interest! These questions kept buzzing in my head: Why can’t genre YA be lighter or funnier? Why does it require romance? Why is contemporary YA allowed to be fluffy? Why aren’t there more YA fantasy books like mine these days?

I’m from the Diana Wynne Jones / Tamora Pierce generation of readers. Those books are light for the most part, and Jones especially can be very funny. The language is simple. Romance isn’t always present, especially in Jones’ books. But they were shelved as young adult / teen in my library (probably because sex is mentioned sometimes, and Pierce in particular acknowledged that girls have periods, which was apparently supposed to be a secret). The characters were typically 15-18 or even older (Wizard Howl is 27 – 10,000 days people, it’s a lot), there were definitely scenes with dark magic and nefarious villains, questions of identity, and some violence. It’s very different from the YA coming out today.

Howl’s Moving Castle was one of my comp titles (a bit of a risk since it’s older than me, but I felt it was accurate), and it sparked a fascinating debate among my CP’s about how we define these categories for books. MG and YA are intended audiences, not a genre in and of themselves, and when I began researching online I found opinions vary widely on what defines them.

There were a few guidelines I found that generally apply:

  • Age of the protagonist (15 and up for YA, 13 and under for MG – yes, 14 is not a thing, keep reading for the reason why)
  • Length of the manuscript (word count)
  • Subject matter (amount and detail regarding sex, violence, language and other traditionally mature themes, similar to MPAA rating guidelines)

Tone and conflict were the divisive factors. There are exceptions to every rule (including the guidelines above) but these were difficult for people to define. Some said that external conflict is MG and internal conflict (especially regarding identity) was YA. Others said the opposite! Some said humor was reserved for MG and YA contemporary stories, but that genre fiction wasn’t light. And so on, down a rabbit hole that never ends.

At the Leviosa panel the opinions there were (again) different but interesting, so I thought I would make a post from the notes I took there. The women on the panel were able to provide a variety of points based on their different degrees of involvement with MG books.

Who are they?

  • Kamilla Benko – editor at Paper Lantern Lit, author of The Unicorn Hunt (2017)
  • Jordan Hamessley – senior editor of the children’s division of Insight Editions in the Bay Area
  • Michelle Schusterman – MG author of the Kat Sinclair and I Heart Band series

Here’s how they answered the question of what makes MG different from YA:

MG is about friendship and family, while YA adds peril, and it features more taboo subjects and questions of identity (ex: sexual orientation). YA tends to have more romantic relationships. For example, in MG stories characters feeling attraction may hold hands, and in upper MG they may kiss once, but anything beyond that is reserved for YA.

MG allows a protagonist to figure out who they are while YA has them take that self-knowledge and see how they fit into the world as their own person. For example, in Harry Potter books 1-3 Harry is concerned with making friends, getting good grades, and being good at Quidditch. But for books 4-7 Harry learns what his destiny is and just wants to survive it.

The endings of MG stories tend to be more hopeful, while YA endings can be mixed (or bittersweet) and adult fiction can end with no hope of a happy ending.

The villains or antagonists in MG tend to have some funny moments or have exaggerated personalities to make them less dark and keep them from overwhelming their younger audience. (Think the Dursleys in the earlier HP books).

For the most part MG does have a lighter, quirkier sense of fun in that zany younger kid way. It’s imaginative, and not as concerned with trends as YA is. However, stories that are popular in adult fiction tend to trickle down to YA over the course of a couple years, and from there can permeate MG in a watered-down way.

A lot of what determines the book’s audience is Barnes & Noble’s buying power. They have a huge say in how the books are shelved and what age bracket they think your book fits. (They can also change your title and your cover). They don’t know how to shelve or market an MG/YA hybrid, which has led to a hole for 14-year-old protagonists.  Consistent pushback from publishing houses and authors (and now readers via social media) is slowly opening the door for more variety in this area, but for now freshman year stories in particular are a black hole on the shelf.

For me, all of this was helpful and eye-opening, but I had one last opinion I wanted to get. If you haven’t heard of the agent Joanna Volpe, you’ve probably heard of her clients (Veronica Roth, Leigh Bardugo, Holly Black, Susan Dennard, Sasha Alsberg…) She is legendary for pulling incredible writers out of the slush pile and spotting trends before they happen. Look up her agency, New Leaf Literary & Media, and you’ll see what I mean! I knew if there was a hole in the market clamoring for a lighter YA fantasy novel, she would know about it.

What she told me was that there is a hole, and it would be nice to bring that facet of YA fantasy back, but a debut author probably isn’t going to do it. That makes perfect sense to me – with everything trending darker it’s more popular to push boundaries than to step back and create something reminiscent of 1985. But she thought the right project from the right person could do it.

I loved hearing these women discuss this topic at the panel and it was nice talking to Jo since the question teased me for weeks! I hope you all enjoyed this tiny peek into the conversations that happened at Leviosa Con. 🙂

Maybe a Fox

25785754by Kathi Appelt & Alison McGhee
Children’s Lit
4 of 5 stars

It’s probably not a secret that I love foxes! This beautiful cover grabbed me at once and the jacket summary was so intriguing I had to spring for it! I struggle to define “magical realism” clearly but I think this qualifies. There are spirit animals and wish rocks mixed in with the woods of Vermont and two sisters catching the bus to school. There are beautifully concrete descriptions of fresh snow crunching down to the ice beneath it, and there are casual mentions of burning wishes and the return of a catamount. This story is just gorgeous but the writing is so simple if you aren’t careful you miss it. I loved it!

Sylvie and Jules are 12 and 11, fast and slow, halves of a whole. They lost their mother six years before, and Jules regrets that her memories are slipping away. Without Sylvie and Dad, she wouldn’t remember at all. Jules hates that Sylvie is always leaving her behind, but a fresh snowfall late in the spring brings them back together as they build snow families in their yard. Sylvie runs down to the river bordering their property to throw in a wish rock (a tradition) but she runs so fast she falls into the rushing water. At the same time, a fox kit named Senna is born. She is kennen–a spirit animal–and she knows her job is to comfort a sad human girl above her den.

These two stories are intertwined with Sam’s, a neighbor boy hoping his older brother Elk will return to his pre-war self now that he’s home. This tiny, vivid Vermont town of grieving people is heart-wrenching and hopeful, too. The sibling dynamics, the mythology surrounding the wish rocks, the fox family–all done with loud brushstrokes and soft moments of introspection. Jules asks big questions about loss and you’re left to decide answers for yourself. It’s hard to say more without spoilers. I wanted this story to be longer because I loved it so much–add it to your list!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Maybe a Fox is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Pax by Sara Pennypacker – Peter and Pax are inseparable, until Peter’s father enlists and orders Peter to get rid of the fox so that he can go live with his uncle. As soon as Peter arrives at his grandfather’s house, he knows it was a mistake to abandon Pax. He runs away to reunite with his fox. Pax is having adventures of his own as he waits for his boy to return. Neither of them will be quite the same when they find each other. See my review here.
  • The Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl – I confess I haven’t read this yet but I loved the movie (I know, I know). A clever fox must save his family from vindictive farmers with his most daring (perhaps fantastic?) plan yet.
  • The Little Prince by Antoine de St. Exupery – A stranded pilot encounters a little prince from space who comes to learn about life on Earth. This short book is incredible and enduring. See my review here.
  • Pegasus by Robin McKinley – A lengthy novel detailing two cultures that attempt to live symbiotically despite their near inability to communicate. Twelve-year-old princess Sylvi is more than ready to bond with her ceremonial pegasus. She knows that only with the help of translators will she and her pegasus be able to communicate and guide their nations together in peace. But Sylvi and Ebon can talk easily on their own, and it leads them both to wonder what other secrets lie between their nations and what it means for their alliance. In typical McKinley fashion there is intense world-building and subtle character development, but this is an immersive story that gets very enjoyable about 1/3 of the way through.
  • Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar – This story about Carolina helping her family pack up her grandfather’s southwestern ranch to sell is incredibly well-done! Magical realism at its best. Carolina’s grandfather Serge is being put in an assisted living home against his will. His dementia is getting worse, and Carolina isn’t sure what to make of his strange story about bees “bringing back the rain.” Until bees start following her around. See my review here.

Peter Pan

peter panby J.M. Barrie
Children’s Fiction / Classics
5 of 5 stars

This has been one of my favorite classic children’s stories for years, and I received this gorgeous edition for Christmas! This embossed hardcover comes fully illustrated with 3-D interactive pop-up elements throughout. Eep! (My previous version was a strange Borders edition with some goth girl in a “Tink” t-shirt on the front. It obviously had to go). My only critique is that “big words” and certain British usages are defined in brackets for younger readers. Learn from context, your parents, or Google, children. It’s good for you!

All that aside, the story itself is fantastic if you haven’t read it. This was a no-brainer to choose for my first classic novel of the year. Yes, it’s a kid adventure story about a flying boy that never grows up, but there are poignant and interesting pearls of wisdom hidden here, too.

Barrie’s descriptions are stirring and memorable, and the episodic adventures are a perfect representation of childhood fun. I haven’t come across this sort of narrative style in quite the same way, so just add this to your list. If you’ve seen a film or stage version, you officially have no idea what the story is really like (although the 2003 adaptation with Jeremy Sumpter comes closest in terms of dialogue and symbolism). Read this and let your heart laugh and twist with wistful feelings.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, this edition of Peter Pan is available on Goodreads and on Boulder Book Store’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo – A brave little mouse sets out to become a knight in a kingdom’s castle to save the beautiful Princess Pea. Charming and full of excellent symbolism.
  • The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle – A “traditional” fairy tale that examines what it is to be human as the last unicorn searches for the rest of her kind with the help of a cynical woman and a magician that can’t do magic.
  • The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket – The first in A Series of Unfortunate Events which follows the three orphaned siblings Violet, Klaus, and Sunny as they get passed from guardian to guardian trying to avoid their nefarious uncle, Count Olaf, and uncover mysteries relating to their parents’ deaths. Darkly humorous and almost too vague at times, but enjoyable.
  • The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery – A philosophical and sharp look at modern society through the eyes of a visiting child-prince. See my review here.
  • How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell – An illustrated and hilarious look at one boy’s quest to prove dragons aren’t all evil monsters. Just as good as the movie!

The Little Prince

157993by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Children’s Lit
5 of 5 stars

I am one of the few (it would seem) who didn’t grow up reading this book. The funny thing is, I remember seeing it at many of my friends’ houses, not with their books, but always in a “coffee table book” context with other large books my 8-year-old self dubbed “boring.” The cartoon cover confused me, but I decided it was a ploy to lure grownups into reading a Boring Book and resolved to ignore it. Yes–I probably spent more time thinking about this book than the average person who read it. And yes, it strikes me now that this kind of thinking sort of allies with the tone of the story.

All that aside, I finally borrowed it from the library, read it in one night, and of course, I loved it! How could you not? A pilot crashes his plane in the desert, and spends his days discussing surprisingly poignant truths with a little prince from another planet. The language was perfect, the tone was perfect, and best of all, everything the little prince learned about Earth was perfect. The satire is completely on point, and since I read the translated English version (alas, I don’t know French), this was especially pleasing. That’s part of how you know it’s telling the truth–these observations haven’t changed for nearly a hundred years. Anyway, it’s a short book, well worth reading, and I’m probably going to buy it so I can revisit it at least once a year.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The Little Prince is available on Goodreads and on Powell’s store website, here. Powell’s has several locations in Oregon, and is one of the largest independent bookstores in the country. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie – The quintessential story about not growing up, this makes a fine companion read to The Little Prince with a similar narrative style and equally moving truths about life. It’s so much more than a Disney cartoon. See my review here.
  • Matilda by Roald Dahl – Another story pitting a child’s intellect against grownups, featuring a little girl with a terrible home life who finds solace in books and her elementary school teacher Miss Honey. Also a social commentary on education and parenting, if you don’t get too distracted by the crazy school pranks.
  • The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster – A rambling adventure of wordplay and smart remarks. I didn’t read this until I was older but I remember absolutely loving it.
  • The Sneetches and Other Stories by Dr. Seuss – This just happens to be my favorite Dr. Seuss book. Each story involves learning about racism, envy, materialism, capitalism, stubbornness, and fear, and it’s all worth remembering later in life as well. If you only vaguely remember it as a kid, or never read it, check it out.
  • The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo – Again, a children’s story I didn’t come across until much later, but so cute and so good! The story of a brave mouse fighting evil and injustice for the sake of the Princess Pea is humorous and touching, and has cute pictures to boot, so now you have no excuse not to grab it.

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